What does climate change have to do with democracy? Quite a bit, it turns out. But the political dimensions of climate policy have not been adequately explored by researchers, while the climate problem is at a critical moment both of understanding and political action. Professors Robert O. Keohane (Princeton University) and Nancy Rosenblum (Harvard University) are leading an interdisciplinary group of scholars to address the difficulties that democracies encounter in responding effectively to climate change. The temporal and geographical dimensions of climate change are unusual for democratic institutions, and its public goods nature poses difficulties in getting the incentives for effective action right.

The climate change policies of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, exemplified in the Kyoto Protocol, have not worked well. Framing the issue almost entirely in terms of reducing emissions, rather than also emphasizing adaptation and building infrastructure, generated a narrow pathway toward effectiveness. With respect to this mitigation pathway, the emphasis under Kyoto was on legally binding commitments, with targets and timetables set in advance of state action—a demanding approach that would have required greater than available political commitment to succeed. COP21 negotiations took a different approach, beginning with national pledges for voluntary action, with arrangements—as yet, not sufficiently well-defined—for periodic review and transparency. Whether this approach generates more progress will depend in considerable measure on how whether the review process is progressively strengthened and how well it works over the next few years.

The Working Group on Climate Change is taking a longer-term perspective, aiming to catalyze new understandings of the politics, sociology, and political theory of climate change policy in a historical and comparative perspective. The aim is to stimulate and reorient social scientific work on climate change, encouraging linkage to the study of social movements in the United States and elsewhere, to the analysis of institutions, international, transnational, and domestic, and to rethink received wisdom on the relation of science and democratic deliberation. The hope therefore is to make a contribution to politically effective action which responds meaningfully to ongoing climate change.

For news and announcements about this working group and other Anxieties of Democracy program activities, please click here: @SSRCdemocracy.



Robert O. Keohane

Professor of International Affairs, Princeton University

Nancy Rosenblum

Senator Joseph Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government, Harvard University



Scott Barrett

Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics, Columbia University

Jessica Green

Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, New York University

David M. Konisky

Associate Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University Bloomington

Melissa Lane

Class of 1943 Professor of Politics, Princeton University

Douglas McAdam

The Ray Lyman Wilbur Professor of Sociology, Stanford University

Michael Oppenheimer

Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs, Princeton University

Naomi Oreskes

Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University

Johannes Urpelainen

Associate Professor of Political Science, Columbia University


Image credit: “Iceberg with Hole” by Brocken Inaglory [CC 2.0]